Answer lies in debate among equals

December 19, 2003

A large-scale international study (the World Values Survey ), just published, compares Arab attitudes towards good governance with those in other parts of the world. Arab countries express the highest rejection of authoritarian rule and top the list of those believing democracy to be the ideal form of government, with support running at almost twice the level found in the US and Canada.

Islam and democracy are incompatible neither in their practice nor in their principles, as any serious reading of the Koran or of the early history of Islam under the Prophet Muhammad will show. In sharp antithesis to all the autocratic patriarchal rulers in the Middle East today, Muhammad ruled as primus inter pares , and Islam itself asserts the equality of all men before God, with no such figure as a pope. As Noah Feldman puts it, Islam and democracy are "mobile ideas" - a broad church - and he clearly details Islam's inclusivity in After Jihad .

Part of his important book seeks to defuse, in accessible terms, once and for all, the essentialist notion that democracy is anathema to Islam: a formulation that translates into the racist idea that the Middle East will never accept modernity, and that underpins a considerable amount of belligerent rightwing thinking in both the US and the UK.

But After Jihad is primarily a book of political practice rather than political theory. For Feldman, although a law professor at New York University with a PhD in Islamic jurisprudence from Oxford University, spent part of last summer in Baghdad as the Bush administration's adviser on the new Iraqi constitution. After Jihad was written and published before that political appointment, but it serves as a manifesto for what Feldman tried to do in Iraq.

Unlike many of those in the Bush administration, Feldman does not see the resurgence of Islam in the middle-eastern public sphere as primarily an expression of anti-westernism. Islamism, in his view, is a critique of the failing political programmes of today's middle-eastern autocrats, a reassuring constant in a world shaken by the rapid advent of modernity. For Feldman, Islamism "speaks the language of justice in a place where justice is hard to come by".

The implication is that the anti-Americanism with which Islamism is so often (rightly) associated has arisen from a region-wide belief that American policy in the Middle East has been unjust. Rather than seeing Islamism as intrinsically and essentially antithetical to American interests and ideals, Feldman regards it as rationally motivated.

Islamism - like Arab nationalism in the 1950s and Marxism in the 1970s - has become the language of the disenfranchised. From Morocco to Indonesia, Islamists call for economic reform, greater accountability, an end to tyranny, and for democracy.

If you doubt this, consider the fact that democracy has been the platform on which most Islamist parties with any widespread support have run. For example, the Front Islamique du Salut in Algeria, which won the national elections in 1990 - only to be prevented from taking office - and the grand ayatollahs of today's new Iraq.

After Jihad sees Islamism not as fanaticism, but as a rational complaint against injustice that, if left unanswered by the US, may lead to an escalation of the existing threat to US global interests.

Feldman's book is a recommendation that, if adopted, would entail a U-turn in the foreign policy pursued by the US in the Middle East since the second world war, as hinted in President George W. Bush's recent references to the need for democracy in the Middle East. Out would go US support for autocrats, such as the Saudi royals, and in would come support for Muslim democrats. Democracies in the Middle East would favour US interests, Feldman thinks, for a variety of reasons. A shift to democracy would defuse the revolutionary fervour and extremist language of much political discourse; democracies are more predictable in their policy-making than dictators; and democracies are more likely to make peace with Israel than autocrats with a vested interest in focusing public anger outside their country.

It is all too easy to view this democratic messianism as simply a more subtle form of imperialism than the recent US-led invasion of Iraq - as many on the extreme left like to do in the US and the UK. But, in my view, After Jihad is a call to America to have the courage of its convictions, to trust in the fundamental appeal of its values to Middle Eastern electorates.

Turi Munthe is editor, The Saddam Hussein Reader .

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